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Creating a New Profile in Courage

High school student among finalists in national essay award.

In his 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy wrote about eight U.S. senators who had taken a political risk to stand upon principle. Since 1989, the Kennedy Library Foundation has awarded the Profile in Courage Award to politicians who continue to act with Kennedy’s vision of “political courage.” This year, the award went to Albert Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy, who worked to end prisoner abuses at Guantanamo Bay, and Congressman John Murtha (D-PA), who forcefully called on the government to pull its troops out of Iraq.

The Kennedy Library also encourages American students to reflect on the risks taken by government officials through its Profile in Courage Essay Contest. 1,861 students submitted essays this year, each one detailing an act of political courage by an elected official.

Out of those entries, Jacqueline Byrd, a Mount Vernon resident who attends Thomas Jefferson High School, was one of seven students whose essay received an award from a panel of judges that included Caroline Kennedy, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, and Sen Olympia Snow, R-Maine. She was among five finalists who were honored along with the first and second place winners.

“I’ve been interested in politics for a while,” said Byrd. “I’ve always been interested in Kennedy … I had “Profiles in Courage” on my shelf and I had never gotten around to reading it. So it was an incentive to read that.”

After researching various possibilities, Byrd decided to write on the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. “It seemed like when looking at him he followed his conscience throughout his career,” Byrd said. “You can’t narrow it down to one final vote … all along he had done what he thought was right and not just what any party said.”

BUT BYRD had to narrow her focus to one act of courage. For a student who had written in seventh grade a fourteen page paper on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, editing her essay to fit within the thousand word requirement was perhaps the toughest part of the process. “Condensing it was definitely a challenge,” said Byrd. “I did so much research and read so many newspaper articles about him.” The final essay is only one and half pages long, but cites ten references, including Wellstone’s book, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” which Byrd read.

The essay begins with a description of Wellstone’s 2002 funeral following a fatal plane crash. Byrd focuses on Wellstone’s 2002 vote against giving President Bush the power to authorize an invasion of Iraq. She details why this stand was an act of political courage. Sixty percent of voters in Minnesota were in favor of military action, and Wellstone’s vote would occur only weeks before they would have a chance to vote for or against him in a hotly contested Senatorial election. Wellstone voted with his conscience however, maintaining a consistent stand against war that began with his first vote upon joining the Senate in 1991, against the first Gulf War. His second vote against war in Iraq proved to be his last. He was killed in a plane crash eleven days before the election.

After studying Wellstone, Byrd came away impressed by his philosophy and his political beliefs. “He became a senator not to have an effect just on broad things, but to change people’s lives,” Byrd said.

She said she thought her essay benefited from the time she spent reading Kennedy’s original “Profiles in Courage.” “Reading it all the way through, I had a deeper understanding of what he was trying to get at,” she explained.

THIS effort to understand Kennedy’s intention was one of the keys to the essay’s success, said contest coordinator Esther Kohn. She said the essays were judged by content and tone. “The main goal of the content is to look to see if the student understood what political courage means as defined by President Kennedy,” Kohn said. “A lot of students don’t understand that. They write a biography of someone.” Kohn also cited “the quality of the writing and the quality of the research … She didn’t just go to Wikipedia.com.”

Jacqueline’s mother Belinda pointed to the new edition of “Profiles in Courage,” signed by Caroline Kennedy, the president of the Kennedy Library Foundation, that was part of Byrd’s award as a contest finalist. Belinda Byrd said she raised money for the Kennedy Library after the president’s assassination. “I raised money as a kid … sent it off, and I got something from Jacqueline Kennedy.”

Belinda Byrd mentioned that her daughter has a large collection of books on President Kennedy. But she didn’t have anything that had been autographed by a Kennedy.

Byrd said she is currently looking at colleges and is leaning towards studying medicine after she graduates high school. She said she had a heart defect as a child, so cardiology is particularly appealing, but of course politics is not off the table either. “[Maybe] sort of a Bill Frist thing,” Byrd said.